Reviewed by John Handley
From Nyet to Da: Understanding the New Russia, by Yale Richmond, Boston: Intercultural Press, 2009, ISBN 978-1-931930-59-8. 168 pp, $24.95.
Yale Richmond, a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer, worked on U.S.-Soviet exchanges for over twenty years and served in the American Embassy in Moscow as Counselor for Press and Culture. He also authored Into Africa; From Da to Yes: Understanding the East Europeans; and Practicing Public Diplomacy: A Cold War Odyssey. (Editor’s Note: See Richmond’s Foreign Service Life article in this issue.)
Yale reveals the essence of this book in the closing line to his introductory chapter “Welcome to Moscow” when he states that Russians can appear cold and impersonal, “where a visitor’s requests are all too often met with an automatic nyet. But Russians respond to a human approach, and they can be warm and helpful once a good interpersonal relationship has been established.” Yale proceeds to tell his readers how to establish such a relationship. This book is not specifically designed to inform or impress a student of foreign policy or international relations. It is meant as a “how to” book; that is, how to get along in Russia for a first-time visitor, specifically a student, a businessperson, or a tourist. Although foreign diplomats will have already experienced all the training and instruction required for success, the book does offer some potentially important insights into how Russians think both about themselves and about non-Russians, and it provides a valuable chapter on negotiating with Russians.
Yale begins with a history lesson in chapter two, “Geography and Culture,” describing the origins of Russia, the cold north, the effects of distance and isolation on Russians, Communalism, the role of nationality in this multi-national and multi-lingual state, and he ends the chapter with a discussion on the role and importance of religion in Russia today. Chapter three, “Culture and Character,” delves into the psychological makeup of modern day Russians weighed down by decades if not centuries of neglect and abuse from authoritarian rulers, with emphasis on their egalitarianism, their automatic caution and pronounced conservatism, the great degree of pessimism most Russian express, and their seemingly constant fluxionary movement between extremes and contradictions. The author expresses great regard for “the Russian soul” describing it as a profound gift to both the Western and Eastern worlds. He also provides examples of the Russian admiration for anything big. In Russia, “big is beautiful.” Yale explains to his readers that Russian women generally rule, especially in the home, and that all Russians feel a sense of the Messianic, believing that their Orthodox Russian Catholic religion is the closest religion to the original apostles in intent as well as in practice.
In the fourth chapter, “State and Society,” Yale explains how the Russian bureaucracy works which usually means bribes or kickbacks. It seems that if anyone wants to get anything done, a considerable amount of bribery must first occur. These bribes are not outlandish, but simply supplement the salaries of poorly paid public servants, clerks, policemen, and just about anyone in a position of responsibility. He also discusses the Russian Mafia, the new KGB, and how the law works in a country struggling to understand and implement democracy after more than a thousand years of authoritarian rule.
One of the most endearing chapters, number five, on “Personal Encounters,” covers life in the city, a relatively new concept to Russians use to living in small, closely knit villages. Russians say little to strangers, but share their deepest thoughts with friends and familiar faces. Home is where they feel safest, and they will do their best to make any guest feel comfortable and relaxed. Visiting a Russian home means an abundance of food and drink, and a series of toasts accompanies every course with additional toasts layered in as appropriate. If the visitor is truly honored, he or she will find themselves at a table in the kitchen and the toasting begins. Visitors are expected to toast, so Yale advises his readers to prepare some toasts in advance. They should be heart-felt and lengthy. One compliments the hostess on her home, her food, her children, but never on her looks. Alcohol is a problem in Russia, with the male mortality rate of about 60 some 13 years less than that of women. Many male deaths are attributed to alcohol related accidents while driving or at work. Whatever you do, do not get into a drinking contest with your Russian hosts. According to Yale, you are bound to lose.
Russians not only drink to excess, but they also lie to excess. Perhaps lie is too strong a word. One could say they simply do not tell the complete truth and this inability to be completely honest gives rise to what the author calls the Russian fib, or vranyo, which has been developed to an art form. While not being completely honest, Russians can be completely critical of themselves and foreigners they consider uncultured. The expression, nyekulturno, simply means uncultured, and a Russian will approach anyone anywhere and chastise that person for some perceived infraction of what Russians perceive as cultured behavior. Nyekulturno varies from slouching in a chair, to showing the bottom of one’s shoes, to embracing another man’s wife, to extending an arm over the top of a sofa, and on and on. Yale describes numerous potential acts of nyekulturno that foreign visitors should avoid. Russians also have a different perception of time than most Westerners in that they can demonstrate considerable patience, especially in negotiating a business deal. The only way for Westerners to counter Russian patience is to also demonstrate patience to the same degree.
One aspect of the book in which I take some exception is Yale’s expectation that foreign visitors will have taken the time to learn Russian, or at least the alphabet and some basic words and terms, before their arrival. He indicates that learning Russian is relatively simple and can be mastered by any visitor. Having spent a year studying Russian at the Defense Language Institute, then another six months some years later in a refresher course, I think he is overly optimistic. Russian is a difficult language. The good thing here is that Russians will appreciate any effort a visitor makes to learn their language, unlike some other Western (not-to-be-named) countries. Although Westerners are use to making deals telephonically, Russians are not. They prefer face-to-face meetings and handshakes.
Chapter six, on “Negotiating with Russians,” is extremely useful to business people and is a good refresher for diplomats. Yale explains the art of negotiation, to include procedures and tactics, the endgame, the paperwork, verification, and finally to expect the unexpected. In chapter seven on “Seeing the Real Russia,” Yale provides numerous tips for traveling safely around Russia and he implores his readers not to be content with seeing the sights of Moscow or the other large cities, but to travel to the provinces to visit a food shop, a department store, and a railroad station, to get a glimpse of the real Russia. Yale ends the book with chapter eight, entitled “Whither Russia,” in which he summarizes the many problems of today’s Russia touched on in earlier chapters, and concludes that the Russian past—its history, geography, culture, religion, and governance—will determine the make-up of the new Russian state, which will be neither European nor Asian, but uniquely Russian.
Dr. John M. Handley, American Diplomacy Publishers Vice-President, is a Professor of International Relations for Webster University’s Ft. Bragg campus. A retired US Army Colonel, Dr. Handley spent his Army career in military intelligence, including as a Defense Attaché, the Dean of the School of Attaché Training at the Defense Intelligence College, and Deputy, Resource Management, for the Defense Intelligence Agency.